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Epistemology of archaeology: Gift exchange, reciprocity, altruism - a contested arena


Compulsory attendance

Yes. You are allowed to miss 1 meeting, but will have to compensate with a paper (ca. 600 words) on the subject matter you missed.

Admission requirements

For RMA-students and PhD-candidates exclusively.


Archaeological research is confusingly multiparadigmatic. The epistemology of archaeology (and anthropology) does not look at archaeological (or anthropological) data as such, but at the various, and often conflicting, ways data are handled in terms of the basic presuppositions of individual archaeologists. Even elementary archaeological concepts (such as “protoculture,” “site,” “intention,” “ritual”) and periodisations (“Ancients-Moderns”, “human adaptive grade”) are theory-laden and always part of a specific theoretical discourse. They are inextricably connected to other notions, rules, assumptions, values, and scenarios which occur in that specific discourse.

The main theoretical/conceptual divide in archaeology and anthropology, connected with opposed views of the disciplinary identity of these disciplines, is that between, on the one hand, culturalist/interpretive (and cf. post-processual) approaches and, on the other hand, evolutionary (ecological, processual) ones. To some extent, archaeology and anthropology are contested arenas between the humanities and the life sciences.

This applies in particular to the anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary biology of gift exchange, reciprocity, altruism and cooperation – the focus of this year’s seminar. There is a deep irony in the fact that there are 2 longstanding and sophisticated bodies of theory regarding cooperation and reciprocity, one Maussian, the other Darwinian, with so little mutual interaction, or even knowledge of the basics of the other angle.

The course consists of 7 three-hour meetings with case studies from various regions and periods.

Course objectives

  • Ability to critically reflect on one’s own ways of handling archaeological data conceptually and theoretically;

  • Ability to apply views and perspectives from the disciplines mentioned above to archaeological data and problems;

  • Ability to formulate and voice one‘s own well-argumented opinion on these matters in discussions with others, in oral and written presentations.

Ects distribution

The course load will be distributed as follows:

  • 7×2 hours of lectures;

  • 280 pages of literature;

  • Assignments.


Course schedule details can be found in the RMA time schedule.

Mode of instruction

  • Lectures with guest speakers;

  • Obligatory weekly student comments on Blackboard;

  • Interaction in class.

Assessment method


  • Written examination;

  • Weekly posts on Blackboard.


  • Paper;

  • Weekly posts on Blackboard.

Assessment deadline

Exam dates can be found in the examination schedule.

Reading list

  • M. Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated from French by W.D. Halls. London: Routledge (2001, 1923/24);

  • R. Corbey, “Laying Aside the Spear: Hobbesian and the Maussian Gift” (2006) in: T. Otto, H. Thrane & H. Vandkilde (eds), Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press. pp. 29-36;

  • K. Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology: An Introduction to Critical Theories of the Gift. Abingdon: Routledge (2005);

  • A. Komter, “The Evolutionary Origins of Human Generosity” (2010) in: International Sociology 25, pp. 443-464;

  • R. Boyd & P.J. Richerson, “Culture and the Evolution of Human Cooperation” (2009) in: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B). 364:3281-3288;

  • C. Gamble, “Palaeolithic Society and the Release from Proximity: A Network Approach to Intimate Relations” (1998) in: World Archaeology 29: 426-449;

  • R. Corbey, The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary.Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press (2005). Chapter 5, on ethnology;

  • R. Corbey & A. Mol, “By Weapons Made Worthy: A Darwinian Perspective on Beowulf“ (2012) in: M. Collard & E. Slingerland (eds), Creating Consilience: Integrating Science and the Humanities. Oxford University Press, pp. 372-384;

  • Some texts and Internet items specified on Blackboard.


Register for this course via uSis.
Instructions for registration can be found in the uSis manual.

Contact information

For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr R.H.A. Corbey.